In the wake of another black man killed by a police officer, in a time so awful we must ask "which one?", it is time to confront what has been staring us in the face for generations: The systemic racism of America's past is still a part of American politics.
Arguably, similar debates have never occurred for social service programs that benefit middle- or upper-class — and often white — communities. Although seldom considered in the same light, Pell grants, which provide funding to pay for college, are a government handout with a financial means test similar to food stamps. Unlike food stamps, very little debate has surrounded the morality of Pell grant recipients.
Both Pell grants and food stamps require recipients to show financial need. To receive food stamps, a family must fall below 130 percent of the federal poverty line. For one person, 130 percent of the federal poverty line is a gross annual income of $15,312.
Pell grants are given on a sliding scale and can be available to a family of any income depending on factors such as the number of dependents and the number of dependents in college. In 2013-14, 430,595 students with families making roughly the median income of $53,939 received Pell grants to pay for college. In that same year, 1,373 students with families making over $100,000 per year received Pell grants.
Both food stamps and Pell grants are government-funded financial handouts. The average Pell grant recipient receives $3,629 for a nine-month academic year to pay for college. The average food stamp recipient receives about $125.35 per month to pay for food; multiplied by nine months, the average food stamp recipient "costs" the U.S. government $1,128.15 for the same academic year.
Despite the undeniable necessity of food, food stamp recipients are constantly in question for their perceived laziness and moral failings. Although the federal government has ruled out testing food stamp recipients, at last count, 15 states have attempted to drug test public welfare recipients (Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin). In 2015, ThinkProgress examined the outcome of drug testing public welfare recipients in seven states and found that less than 1 percent of welfare recipients had a positive drug test.
Comparatively, a 2013 study at the University of Michigan found that nearly half of all college students had used illegal drugs in their lifetime. At the time the students were asked about their drug use, 40 percent admitted to using illegal drugs in the 12 months preceding the study.
If Pell grant recipients are using drugs at higher rates, why are we drug testing food stamp recipients? Pell grants are given to students to pay tuition, but any excess money left over after the tuition is paid is given to students in a check. Food stamps are given to recipients on a debit card that is programed to only pay for food (undeniably, some people "sell" their food stamps for cash). While Pell grant recipients are free to buy whatever they please with their grant refund checks, an exorbitant amount of work goes into limiting food stamp recipients to buying only food.
What is the difference between Pell grants and food stamps? The recipients. Whites are the largest racial group receiving Pell grants; in 2008, 46.3 percent of Pell grant recipients were white. In the same year, African-Americans were the largest group of food stamp recipients; 35.7 percent of food stamp recipients in 2008 were black.
Certainly, food stamps are designed to serve a largely lower income community, as opposed to Pell grants. Perhaps classism is to blame for the scrutiny directed toward food stamp recipients. In a country where income, social status and race are so intricately intertwined, though, it's impossible to extrapolate which is which. Although factually, both programs do serve low-income communities, there is a race to the image of a welfare recipient and a race to the image of a college student.
The image of a "welfare queen" — a drug-abusing black woman with multiple children, who chooses not to work — dates back to the 1970s. The much more realistic image of a working single parent, doing all he or she can to support hungry children, is often lost in a racialized country that consistently devalues skin that is not white.
Examining violence toward black communities in the past week, or the past century, through a microscopic focus on police brutality alone is a mistake. In context, police brutality in the black community is only one piece in a very large system of racism — a system so pervasive that even help buying food is stigmatized by a racialized image of a "welfare queen" with little factual evidence to back it up. Legislation based in racist imagery, without facts — like drug testing public assistance recipients — only serves to perpetuate a system of covert oppressive racism.
Leong is a part-time faculty member at Salem State University and a member of the Scholars Strategy Network.